Category Archives: Americas

Venezuela is Collapsing

Shoppers waiting in line at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela

Shoppers waiting in line at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela, the fifth most populated country in South America, is in the midst of a severe economic collapse. Over the past two years, hyperinflation has devastated the economy while the government’s attempts at currency manipulated have only added to the problem. The official government rate today trades around 10 bolivars for a dollar, but in reality the exchange is closer to 100 to one. Initially in January and affirmed in April, the IMF predicted the currency could collapse completely by the end of 2016 according to its World Economic Outlook, noting the inflation rate could more than double from its current rate of over 275% to as high as 720%. Earlier this month, President Nicolas Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency.

President Nicolas Maduro

President Nicolas Maduro

The government is shuttering offices and services five days a week to save money and schools are now closed on Fridays. Limits have been placed on the usage of water and electricity, when and if they are available at all, and food shortages can be seen by the empty grocery stores being replaced by a pop up black market economy. Furthermore, the rate of violent crime has skyrocketed as the nation’s capital, Caracas, posted the highest murder rate outside of an active war zone in 2015. Over 330 police were murdered last year in Venezuela according to independent groups, and they purport armed gangs and drug cartels are expanding their operations ruthlessly and rapidly.

Multinational companies have also been hit severely by the crisis, and nearly all have taken action to cut losses. Companies that have already deconsolidated their holdings in Venezuela include Proctor & Gamble, Ford, and PepsiCo. General Mills and Clorox have exited the country, Coca Cola has shut down production due to a shortage of sugar, and dozens more companies are debating whether to renege on their investments and leave or try to stick through the downturn. Tourism in the beautiful country has also been devastated as airliners slash operations and limit flights. American Airlines has cut their number of flights per week from 48 to 10, both Delta and United have drastically reduced the number of flights, and Lufthansa has indefinitely suspended its Venezuelan service altogether. The business reputation of the country has all but vanished for the time being.

Real vs. estimated inflation in Venezuela

Real vs. estimated inflation in Venezuela

How did Venezuela fall into this crisis? Hugo Chavez led the country for over a decade heralded as one of the world’s strongest socialist states, depending heavily on the country’s vast oil industry. Corruption was relatively overlooked because abundant oil money sustained the system and the country’s GDP was consistently high among South American countries. The over reliance on oil completely undercut the possibility of a balanced economy during Chavez’s presidency, which was also marred by potential human rights violations and the stymieing of any political opposition. Real cracks in the system became even more apparent in the early 2010s as government expenditures continued to rise while actual revenues fell due to the drop in oil prices.

Following Chavez’s death in 2013, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, has attempted to continue Chavez’s state-heavy policies and entrenched socialism, however with oil funds drying up and persistent corruption, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. Opposition politicians won big in the elections against Maduro’s camp in December and ever since have contested his power amid the collapsing economic and political structures. Social, political, and security indicators have all worsened with the continued consolidation of state power, and Maduro today stands on a fragile precipice.

Even if oil prices rise as expected, the amount of revenue needed to dampen the crisis seems unobtainable without drastic political changes. Government employees have actually personally benefited in the short term from the hyperinflation because they can utilize the official exchange rate unlike ordinary citizens. Maduro may be ousted sooner than later as his crumbling government continues to flounder, polls suggest nearly 70% of Venezuelans want him to step down this year and talks of a referendum occur often. Hard times are ahead for Venezuelans and the situation will get even tougher before it begins to turn around.

 

 

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What the FARC?

The Colombia and FARC-EP peace talks in Havana, Cuba

The Colombia and FARC-EP peace talks in Havana, Cuba

Very few conflicts last over half a century. Thankfully, one such conflict may be nearing its end after 51 years of protracted violence and national strife.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began in 1954 as a militant group with an ideology of peasant Marxism-Leninism. In the 1980s during a period of increased power, they rebranded as FARC-EP, adding “ejército del pueblo” or “Army of the People” to their title. FARC has been referred to as “Latin America’s last major revolutionary group” and have been critical to the persistent violence in Colombia. The militants profit most through the illegal drug trade, which amounts to allegedly $500-600 million per year, and at one point they were thought to provide 50% of the world’s supply of cocaine. The group has also been associated with illegal mining, extortion, kidnappings, and instituting informal taxes in areas of control.

Flag of the FARC-EP

Flag of the FARC-EP

More than 220,000 have been killed in the internal Colombian conflict, and over 80% of the victims were civilians, according to a government sponsored report. The majority of violence and the overwhelming majority of victims are located in the countryside. Targeted assassinations, massacres, and hostage taking became a routine part of the political conflict for decades. Right-wing paramilitary groups created to counter FARC and independent criminal gangs have added to the violence while fighting rebels and pursuing their own agendas. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre asserts that Colombia has over 6 million internally displaced persons, second only to Syria. In 2005, Human Rights Watch stated that approximately 20-30% of FARC militants were recruited child soldiers.

FARC was among the initial organizations to be designated as a terrorist group when the United States first created its classification system in 1997. FARC is also listed as a terrorist organization by Colombia, Canada, New Zealand, and the European Union, but not by any other South American countries. In recent years, FARC has renounced kidnapping for ransom, released the last of its prisoners of war, and has participated in talks with the Colombian government to resolve the armed conflict once and for all. A separate, smaller Marxist revolutionary group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has undertaken similar activities to FARC in parallel is also undergoing peace talks with the Colombian government.  

The most recent and thus far successful peace talks were initiated between the government and FARC rebels in 2012, focusing on six key points.

  1. Land reform
  2. Political inclusion
  3. Drug trafficking
  4. Victim rights / transitional justice
  5. Disarmament of rebels
  6. Implementation of the peace deal

All but the last two steps have thus far made significant progress as part of the ongoing talks in Havana, Cuba. A final document signing has been slated for the 23rd of March next year, and experts have been largely optimistic. FARC has vowed to leave their weapons in exchange for amnesty for low level fighters. Critics of the deal, including former president Álvaro Uribe, argue that the government is not doing enough to prosecute militants and their integration into Colombia’s political society will produce a negative backlash. Nonetheless, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s leader, Timochenko, have forged ahead in hopes of finally achieving a lasting peace. Timochenko has affirmed, “We are willing to take responsibility for our actions during the period of resistance.”

Cocaine seized by Colombian officials from FARC rebels

Cocaine seized by Colombian officials from FARC rebels

FARC has announced that once the final peace agreement is inked, it will lay down its weapons within 60 days. The format used in the peace plan, called the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, adopts elements from previous frameworks implemented in Yugoslavia and South Africa. Militants will be subject to prison sentences that can range from 5 years to 20 years depending on their level of cooperation. According to a briefing released by the International Crisis Group, “More than three years of confidential and public talks have built a shared sense that the transition is possible. … leveraging these gains and strengths is the most promising way forward.”

The transitional process has made significant process that should be hailed as a grand success because, if nothing else, of the achieved cessation of hostilities. FARC’s willingness to accept responsibility and the government’s stated commitment to due process should both be held to a high standard and monitored. Even after a peace deal is struck, there will still be much work to be done, including the removal of thousands of landmines throughout the country and the detention of FARC leaders. The legacy of the Colombian conflict will live on for years to come, but at least there is a greater opportunity for positive reconciliation that has been missing for over five decades.

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Mexico’s Missing 43

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On September 26th, 2014, forty-three students of the rural Ayotzinapa teacher’s college went missing after a deadly altercation with local police in the city of Iguala, Mexico. The students had commandeered several buses in the southwestern state of Guerrero to demonstrate against government educational reforms in hiring and funding. Reportedly under orders from the then-Mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, municipal police halted the buses and opened fire on the passengers, killing three of the students and three pedestrians. Over a dozen students fled the scene, while the ‘Ayotzinapa 43’ were loaded into police vehicles before being handed over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) crime syndicate. The most widely accepted theory of what happened next is that the students were summarily executed, then their bodies burned in a remote dump in the state of Guerrero, which is corroborated by gang member confessions and an expert report by an Argentine forensics team confirming bone remains belonged to one of the missing 43.  Additionally, an investigation released by the Mexican magazine Proceso with assistance from the Investigative Reporting Program of UC Berkeley has argued that Federal Police were directly complicit in the attacks. The atrocity sparked nationwide anti-government protests highlighting the rampant corruption within the Mexican political system. Furthermore, the event serves as a blatant example of just how incredibly deep drug cartels have infiltrated, and now control elements of Mexican law enforcement and political officials.

Anti-government protests in Mexico City

Zocalo Square, Mexico City rally for the missing students

The missing 43 young men were all members of a ‘Normalista’ school, a college that prepares students for rural teaching with a curriculum intertwined with a history of activist politics and leftist social justice. While violent incidents have occurred in the past, nothing on this scale has occurred since the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in which between 30 and 300 people were killed by military and police. Americas Director of Human Rights Watch Jose Miguel Vivanco stated, “These are the worst atrocities we’ve seen in Mexico in years, but they are hardly isolated incidents. Instead, these killings and forced disappearances reflect a much broader pattern of abuse and are largely the consequence of the longstanding failure of Mexican authorities to address the problem.” In fact, during the search for the bodies, many other mass graves were discovered, though the fate of the remainder of the Ayotzinapa 43 may never be ascertained.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto did not respond to the event for eleven days, and even then he did not meet with the parents of the missing students for thirty-three days, opting to call families to the capital for a meeting rather than traveling to the site in the state of Guerrero. The disrespectful delay reflects the hesitancy of the Mexican government’s willingness to take on the fundamental problems of corruption and counter the reach of the drug cartels. Outside of Mexico, the fate of the students and questionable governmental response drew limited media attention that quickly dissipated, while within the country continuous large-scale demonstrations, riots, demonstrations and calls for President Nieto’s resignation persist. More recently, authorities arrested the Mayor of Iguala Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who has known familial drug cartel connections, in Mexico City after they had fled the fallout of the incident. In total, over 80 people have been arrested, the majority of whom are local police or members of the Guerreros Unidos organization.

Demonstrators in Mexico City protesting against the 'Narco Police'

Demonstrators in Mexico City protesting against the ‘Narco Police’

Criminal investigations are pending against Abarca and Pineda, with uncertain implications for their political allies and the law enforcement structure of the region. Already there has been an alarming amount of maneuvering within the Mexican government to avoid blame and place it elsewhere, but it is obvious that the entire apparatus needs improvement in accountability. Unfortunately, mass killings by drug cartels in Mexico have become all too commonplace, though the barbarity and boldness of this latest tragic incident reveals just how severe parts of the country are controlled by the reach of the drug cartels. It is clear the  level of collaboration between criminal organizations and the Mexican political system has reached  new and unprecedented levels, and because the former is so embedded in the latter, it will take an incredible amount of effort to revert this trend via comprehensive governmental reform.

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